When I was a young reporter, I overheard an exchange between an editor and a fellow reporter that forever changed the way I think about journalism and storytelling.
The reporter had just returned from covering a community event and was telling the editor what he had learned and explaining his plans to organize the story. The reporter mentioned that there was a dog at the event, and he thought it would be great to open his story with an anecdote about the dog and its owner.
“Did you get the dog’s name?” the editor asked.
“Um, no,” the reporter said. “I didn’t think that was important.”
The silence was palpable, and I glanced over to see what was going on. The editor had a pained expression on his face, and the reporter looked bewildered. What was the big deal, I wondered. It was just a dog.
You always get the name of the dog, the editor explained. The dog is a character in your story, and names tell readers a lot about your characters. It’s a crucial storytelling detail, and if you’re alert and inquisitive enough to ask for the name of the dog, you’ll surely not miss any other important details.
I’ve never forgotten those words: Always get the name of the dog. It’s a maxim in the journalism world, and it represents the best practices for gathering information.
Of course, it’s not always a dog, and you don’t have to be a journalist to use this knowledge. The point is that the best content is rich with details that will hook readers and give them more than just a compilation of facts and quotes.
If you want to truly connect with your readers, you have to sweat the details. By taking the time to think like a reporter, you’ll be able to gather better information and deliver it in a clear, compelling way that will strike a chord with your audience. Here are three central journalism skills you should focus on:
This is the most important skill for journalists — and any content creator, for that matter. Throughout my 14 years in a newsroom, I worked with many journalists who weren’t the best writers, but because they could extract insights and opinions from sources, they created meaningful stories that resonated with readers. You can always hone your writing — that’s what editors are for, after all — but without solid information, you don’t have much of a story.
Just like journalists, you need quality information to craft captivating content. The best way to do this is to develop solid interviewing techniques that will allow you to extract knowledge and insights from your clients or company experts. Consider streamlining the process and using a knowledge management system where you can store and organize ideas, examples, anecdotes, and other material that can be used for articles.
Many journalists use a similar approach. They take endless notes — story ideas, impressions of sources, unique insights — and mine them for future articles. Knowledge is the cornerstone of superior stories, in journalism and content marketing.
Once journalists have quality information from interviews, they usually need to do research to fully develop their stories. Sources often make claims without providing evidence or touch on topics that merit further investigation. It’s the journalist’s job to figure out the truth — or get as close to the truth as possible. The best journalists go beyond the “he said, she said” and use objective data to help readers make sense of opposing viewpoints.
No matter the type of content you create, using data, statistics, and research will bolster the credibility of your articles. Use reputable sources to back up claims, and seek out data that will help readers understand the points you’re making.
All good stories are based on facts, and citing statistics and data to back up your opinions and viewpoints will build trust with readers.
Once you have quality information and a point to make, you have to be able to package it into a clear and compelling story. Journalists have traditionally favored the inverted pyramid style of writing — presenting facts in diminishing order of importance — but have adopted narrative storytelling styles in recent years. Why? Because personal stories that show rather than tell resonate more with readers.
For your content to have any impact, you need to add personal examples and relatable anecdotes as well as facts and figures. For example, when writing about workplace etiquette, don’t just tell readers the best way to handle a situation. Instead, tell a personal story that illustrates your points.
Use characters, scenes, and anecdotes in your introduction to draw in readers. Then, state your central argument or viewpoint. Use the next sections to elaborate on your points (sprinkle in examples to show rather than tell), and offer evidence to back up your claims. Finally, conclude by restating your points.
Showing is always better than telling, and the personal story trumps prescriptive prose every time.
Storytelling is as old as mankind, and the basics are the same no matter the objective or the audience. You need detail-rich information and clear writing to stand out and make a connection with your readers.
By honing some journalism skills, you can craft stories that resonate and are remembered. Always get the name of the dog, and you’ll start focusing on the details that will drive your content.